317 posts categorized "Creativity"

June 16, 2015

When a Snow Queen starts a school: the no-grades route to University

Drumduan

No grades (ever), no sitting down at desks, and harnessing student boredom as a motivator to create and explore might seem an odd recipe for academic success and entry to university, but that is exactly what one of Scotland's newest schools is attempting to do.

Drumdruan Upper School was created a few years ago by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, star of many a Hollywood blockbuster and forever in my mind the terrifying Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The school extends a Steiner education beyond the age of 14, and takes students through to their University years. The Observer has published a fascinating and detailed account of some of the recipe that makes this a special place and, above all, has bowled over the traditionally conservative schools inspectorate:

That is not what happened: the inspectors sat in the classes and watched the students. And if you watch the students at Drumduan, you soon notice they are confident, articulate, highly motivated and respectful. These are, in fact, the words used by the inspectors in their subsequent report. You might even believe the students at Drumduan wanted to be there. The inspectors clearly felt so, but it was when they had retired to an office to confer that Krzysztof, a master of the spontaneous gesture, delivered the coup de grace. He sang to them.

Music is something of a hallmark at Drumduan, where children participate in regular workshops – often on instruments like a wheelie bin – and start each day singing in four-part harmonies. “We were rehearsing in another room, and I said: ‘This song is terrific, we have to show these inspectors,’” Krzysztof recalls. “So we burst into their office – they were a bit alarmed – and I said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve just got to sing this song to you.’” The song was “Media Vita”, a medieval score of haunting beauty that reduced the inspectors to tears, according to Krzysztof. Bowled over by their praise – he is a man whose emotions are close to the surface – Krzysztof asked if he could give them a hug, probably a first for all of them.

 ...

“There’s no grading, no testing at all,” Tilda had explained to me earlier. “My children are now 17, and they will go through this school without any tests at any time, so it’s incredibly art-based, practical learning. For example, they learn their science by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelising onions. And they’re all happy 17-year-olds. I can’t believe it – happy and inspired.”

May 31, 2015

Why education needs more fuzzy thinking

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It’s been a decade since I first heard the education conference cliché that we are preparing our kids for a future we don’t even understand. I argue that since then we've done little about it, in this week's Editorial in the Times Educational Supplement.

Ten years ago, that wasn’t really true. In fact, the immediate future was pretty predictable between 2005 and 2010: the internet remained slow and some kids didn’t have it at home, most didn’t use Facebook, smartphones were still far too expensive and the iPad wasn’t launched until January 2010. Even terrorism was mostly still “over there”, and wars likewise, rather than recruiting from comprehensives in the Home Counties.

Since then the world has learned what “exponential” really means. The normal trajectory post-school is no longer a linear certainty but a struggle with what a new breed of thinker and doer embraces as “fuzzy goals”. This emergent group of young people, activists and senior industry leaders spends most of its days grappling with unknown unknowns – technologies, jobs, ways of thinking and, yes, even terrorist groups that we didn’t even know we didn’t know about.

At the same time, our understanding of “what matters” in education hasn’t budged beyond a few pockets of relative daring. We still operate within our hierarchy of subjects, overcharged curricula and an expectation that teachers will stand and deliver it. There is little room for fuzziness here.

In this week's Times Educational Supplement, I expand on how fuzzy problem-finding and -solving are some of the core skills that we've been ignoring too long in the search for standaradisation and content-heavy cramming. What do you think?

Pic by HB2

May 18, 2015

Do we actually want to close the achievement gap?

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I end this small run of blog posts with the question posed by Professor Brian Boyd at the beginning of our evening:

Do we want to close the achievement gap?

We know we can close the gap. It’s been done or almost been done before in Scottish education, but the answers have been ignored as they pass us by. The simple clue is this: poverty is single biggest predictor of achievement, and according to research (Hammonds sic, reference required), aged 10, a child living in poverty is 60% less likely to get to university.

Boyd borrowed from his own mother’s report card to ask us what kind of education we desire. Is it the academic success at all costs route, or is there another option we need to value as much, if not more? His mother’s report card, one that prevented her from becoming a secondary school pupil in Glasgow, is filled with G and FG, until the last point: Character and conduct - excellent.

What kind of pupils do we want to develop in Scotland? What do we value in our assessment system? Opening up opportunity for all is a tough game to play when the examination system rewards only certain types of behaviour, few of them related to what the Curriculum for Excellence says we stand for. In his own small community in East Kilbride, three secondary schools enter a period of meltdown as the local rag sets about creating its own local league table of performance, with those three ‘teams’ in competition for the top spot (or at least not the bottom one). Therefore, we must stop basing “the gap” largely on attainment.

First of all, Boyd would like us to remove the traditional, and non-sensical academic/vocational divide. Is the law or medicine degree we value not vocational? (Are all General Practitioners not Plumbers, as Dr Murray on the panel suggests?)

Second, we must start from the ground up, in the early years. It is with parental expectations from this youngest age that we can help prevent the gap becoming quite so large in the first place.

Third, there is no research that supports setting. So why do we continue? Telling students they’re not ‘top’ will certainly reinforce their expectation and aspirations to be anything other than top.

Fourthly, pedagogy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Teachers must have opportunities to talk about learning and teaching, to hone their craft and learn from each other.

Finally, cooperation instead of competition between departments, school types, ages, stages, and sectors is the only way we can begin to crack this question. Scottish schools have never been comprehensive, really. People have flocked to what is perceived to be ‘the good school’, making them better schools as a result. And the rest of them?

but, collaboration with business… a step too far?
Collaboration with business might be the hardest step for Scottish school to take, in a system recognisable today as the one set up by socialist forefathers in the name of equality. For some in the education sphere there are, without a doubt, perceptions that business is anything but equality in action, but instead a position of privilege at the expense of others. This surely has to change.

Maybe it is telling, in fact, that NoTosh, a company I founded five years ago, with the explicit aim to bring creative approaches from creative enterprises into the classroom, sees less than 0.5% of its turnover generated in Scotland, and none of that comes from schools. The picture above, in fact, is of one project where we brought entrepreneurship skills to the vocational education system in Finland. In non-business speak: Scottish schools aren't as interested as nations all over the world, when it comes to seeing how learning, process and leadership from outside education might help us inside formal education. 

One thing is sure: the narrowing and closing of the achievement gap in its widest sense is not something schools and the school system will manage to do on its own. It is, perhaps, long time that conversations between business, creative enterprise and the public service begin to happen much more often, with much more drive to deliver for our children. 

May 08, 2015

Making isn't as important as the design thinking dispositions that come with it

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In the Designing Spaces for Learning Masters subject I wrote and teach at Charles Sturt University, there is one week spent on Experimental Spaces. Part of that module is on making and maker culture. I purposefully didn't dote an entire one of my sixteen weeks on making, but write about it as a type of activity requiring a type of space that many treat as 'experimental':

...Making, and the attitudes outlined here, are nothing new. The oldest record of technology, engineering and craft being made a core area of learning goes back to 1868, and the first Chair of Engineering in any university was in 1959, at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Until the 1990s, it is fair to say that the emphasis was on building skills, not mindset, that would lend themselves to industry.

"In the 1990s, though, we see a change in Scotland towards state secondary and primary schools introducing craft, technology and design courses, with an emphasis on enquiry, problem-framing and making to learn. It might be argued that many of the criteria for a successful maker space and for the Maker Movement itself have been nurtured, developed and finely honed over at least 25 years in those countries like Scotland where, rather than pushing such subjects to the fringes of school life - or out of school life altogether - "maker" type school subjects have morphed with the times, to maintain their relevance (Dakers, 2005; Scottish Government, 2006).

This might explain the recent powerful growth of makerspaces in some environments (American and academics-focussed international schools) versus a lack of financing and marketing for such spaces in others (thanks to the long-standing provision of maker technologies in state schools in the United Kingdom, for example).

Some new research emerging from the Harvard Project Zero team is also pointing to the fact that making itself is nothing new, and nor is making itself anything particularly unique in what it offers students, either. However, the new interest in making is helping education institutions and systems remember something that they had forgotten, lost when they originally got rid of stalwart craft subjects in the interest of 'academic rigor':

Students learn a tremendous amount through maker-centered learning experiences, whether these experiences take place inside or outside of makerspaces and tinkering studios. There is no doubt that students learn new skills and technologies as they build, tinker, re/design, and hack, especially when they do these things together. However, the most important benefits of maker education are neither STEM skills nor technical preparation for the next industrial revolution. Though these benefits may accrue along the way, the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world. (Emphasis added)

That sense of self, community and self-efficacy - "I can change the world around me" - are the same results my NoTosh team have seen in learners who undertake more student-led, immersive, complex learning, where they find the problems they wish to solve. The same effect can be found in the nascent research on design thinking for learning coming from Swinburne University, Australia (Melles 2010; Melles, G., Howard, Z. & Thompson-Whiteside, S. 2012). The benefit is visible where  the problem itself is academic and not practical, even if the problem itself offers no opportunity for physical construction, even if the problem is not related to science, technology, engineering or maths. It appears to be the very process of working on something you have chosen to work on offers that very sense of 'real' and ownership that are so much at the core of sharing learning objectives, success criteria and being in a position to act meaningfully on feedback.

Picture from Russell Davies

References:

Dakers, J (2013) Technology Education in Scotland: an Investigation of the past twenty years. Conference proceedings from Pupils Attitudes Towards Technology (PATT 15). Retrieved from: http://www.iteaconnect.org/Conference/PATT/PATT15/Dakers.pdf

Melles, G. (2010). Curriculum design thinking: a new name for old ways of thinking and practice? Sydney: Proceedings of the DTRS8 Conference 299-308. http://www.academia.edu/392724/Curriculum_Design_Thinking_A_New_Name_for_Old_Ways_of_Thinking_and_Practice

Melles, G., Howard, Z. & Thompson-Whiteside, S. (2012). Teaching design thinking: Expanding horizons in design education. Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 31 162 – 166

Scottish Government (2006), Experiences and outcomes: Technologies. Retrieved from: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/learningteachingandassessment/curriculumareas/technologies/index.asp

April 24, 2015

Keeping students at school 24/7 through the Seven Spaces of Learning

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Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.

That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.

The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.

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In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:

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 Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:

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Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.

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While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:

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Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:

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As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing. 

Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?

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February 23, 2015

Expectations #28daysofwriting

This is what they call a "forward" post. I wrote it yesterday, when I had wifi and time, and am posting under today's date. I have a (reasonable) expectation that I will be alive tomorrow, and that this will not, therefore, freak out anyone unduly.

In the early days of blogging with my school students, back in 2002/3, I'd use forward posting on the foreign trips we made because mobile access to blogging software on my Nokia was so expensive. At the time I gauged our expectations of living tomorrow high, but was young enough and foolish enough to forget that, should our coach have gone off piste 88 mums and dads, notwithstanding the rest of our families, would have been rather taken aback to see us "happily arrived in Caen", and not in the mortuary. 

Expectations are funny things. We all like to believe we have different expectations, but some of our expectations are just hardwired, like the pentatonic scale, into our beings. This year, the case was proven when I felt obliged, finally, to remove my kid from her local school and attempt to fund a better future in a local private school. The principle reason for this move, against many education bones in my body, was that state education in my neck of the woods feels like it has lost its sense of expectation for every kid. Our expectations are realistic, perhaps, and the intention of supporting all children to achieve will help the lower 20% become a much more able lower 20%. But there will always be a bottom 20%. And if our efforts are in setting expectations for the middle, all kids will  tend to aim a little below whatever we set them. In her new school, Catriona is flourishing, with expectations set at a stratospheric level and a hidden understanding that, really, the goal isn't to meet them at all. There's something else going on.

This ties into what we consider 'normal' expectations. My expectation of being alive tomorrow (today) when this is posted are high. I place trust in my pilots, my plane and my fellow passengers, not to do us any harm.

My expectations of living another day along with my students back in 2002 were equally high, but not entirely shared by nervously grinning colleagues when they knew what I had prepped for future-posted blog posts.

My expectations for my kids' own learning are stratospheric. At 4 and 7 years old, I expect them to be able to do anything that they want, as long as... and there is the tough bit. What are the conditions for expectations that mean some schools succeed in pitching them perfectly, and others, on a systemic level, fail completely?

This is not a pushy parent, or a doting dad post. This is all about helping my kids learn earlier than I did what Steve Jobs put thus:

"When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money...

"That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.

"Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

February 20, 2015

Learning about the unknown unknowns #28daysofwriting

Designing the unknown | Long Version (25min) from CGS Mines ParisTech on Vimeo.

Sometimes the 28 days of writing is really the 25 minutes of watching.

My question: when a teacher uses Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's backwards design or understanding by design type methodology for learning, and nothing else, will your students ever experience the more real-world feeling of trying to fathom the fuzzy, ambiguous unknowns that lie ahead?

February 12, 2015

Your strategy does not interest me. Next! #28daysofwriting

Andy maslen

NoTosh doesn't just help scores of schools and private business with their strategy; we're in the process of adjusting our own course, too. What I've noticed, is that the activity known as 'wordsmithing' is normally referred to dismissively, with disdain, as something someone else will do much later on, once they "real work" of strategising is done. These leaders could not be more wrong.

Far from the afterthought or polishing to which the task is often reduced, getting the wordsmithing right as you create your strategy is vital if you want people to really believe in it.

To help me on NoTosh's own strategising I've been diving into Andy Maslen's tomes (that's his distinguished mug on the top of the post). For a copywriter extraordinaire, he tends to spend at least half his books helping the reader understand what it is they are trying to do and why the hell they're doing it. I can imagine a few strategies dying a necessarily premature death by around p.43 of most his books. 

A key point that resonates as I undertake a few schools-based strategy projects, is this one:

People want to know what's in it for them (WIIFM?).
They don't care how clever you are.
They don't care that you are proud / humble / honoured about anything.
They don't care how much excellence you promote.
People want to know what's in it for them.

He suggests a couple of writing tools that will help education strategists (any strategist, really) to convey their 'why', and in turn the WIIFM, so much more clearly:

  • KFC:
    What do you want your reader / student / parent / teacher / peer to know, how do you want them to feel about it, and what do you want them to commit to?
  • Don't use the 'F' word - use the 'B' word
    Don't list off the features of your latest product / school / initiative / programme of work / technology roll-out. Tell us the benefits in our lives. This works in the same way as I suggest people should pitch new ideas to their peers: start with a 'pain', turn the thumbscrews until we're begging for an answer, and then tell us all about how your idea is going to make our lives so much better.
  • FAB: Grab me by the ... benefits
    Features first, then tell me the general advantages of working in this way might be, and then tell me the benefits to me personally.
  • Don't assume I'm paying attention
    Too many governmental policies, school strategies and "research-based" approaches to learning simply assume that the audience should be receptive to the new idea. This is a fatal flaw, and undermines even the best ideas. Assume that your audience has plenty of other far more interesting things to be doing, and write your strategy or pitch to wrestle their attention back towards you. Try starting the strategy with the words "How" or "Now" and see how people want to take part in making it happen.

 

February 10, 2015

Failure: When is it "a fail too far"? #28daysofwriting

At a concert in Gothenburg Concert Hall October 23, 2013, Christian Zacharias stopped playing in the middle of Haydn's Piano Concerto, interrupted by a cell phone ringing for the second time the same concert. Was he right to stop?

In this interview, that I've used in two recent keynotes on creativity and failure, Zacharias makes the point that listening to a concert is one of the rare moments in our lives where we can concentrate on just one thing, without interruption. Much like deep thinking or learning, interruptions by phone rings (or bell rings in school) are catastrophic for our projects and ideas.

In this instance, it was just too much. On the up side, Zacharias says, after such an interruption, the audience is even more attuned to what is going on, on the stage.

But not all interruptions need to be treated with the same disdain: 

I love the shrug at the end, a realisation that something simple and playful can diffuse the potential blot on a whole performance. 

In teaching, it's easy to let interruptions get in the way of our thinking. We respond with anger, frustration, telling offs... But it is the regular interruptions to our thinking - the bell, the timetable, the examination - that risk being the biggest incumbrance to sustainable levels of creativity and deep thinking of school students the world over. 

10 years ago, I might have been amongst the masses to point out that the bell, the timetable and the examination are all thrust upon me, as a teacher, and that I have no chance of controlling them merely in the name of creativity. Today, however, I know that teachers can achieve so much more if they design their way out of it. I've just come off a call with educators at Nanjing International School where, in preparing and prototyping ideas for a new strategy:

  • students have taken longer periods of time with specialists, rather than the chop-change of a regular schedule - more learning, less running around between classes;
  • homework has been replaced with home learning, based on the self-created projects students undertake during the day;
  • students develop personal projects get deep into learning outside the classroom, where there are no bells or timetables (said one kid: "When you're interested in it it's really easy!");
  • parents are sitting in with their sons and daughters during class and lunchtime, to see how they learn what they learn;
  • students are starting kernels of social entrepreneurship firms whose objective is longevity and sustainability, not short-term money-making.

All of these have come as a result of the school working as a whole, with design thinking mindsets along the way, to think differently about learning, to make learning happen from the point of view of what works for the student, more than what works for reinforcing the existing system.

Less of the status quo can only ever be a good thing...

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I should finish by pointing to the encore of Zacharias, where his playfulness is finally visible.

February 07, 2015

Unplug from this. Plug back in to that #28daysofwriting

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This is Saturday's #28daysofwriting, written on Saturday February 7th, but not typed up until Monday February 9th. Why? At the weekend I make every attempt to unplug from technology. Most of my best ideas do not happen while staring at a screen, small or large, but from doing the opposite: experiencing life around me.

Stating this will annoy some of the 28 people awaiting a pitch, programme, plan, project proposal or reply. Some of them will have waited a week, as last week's trip to Canada was so intense I didn't have the energy to give them the quality of thinking and time they deserve. 

But unplugging on a regular basis, and not just splurging on an "analogue August" or "wifi-less winter" is something we should all aspire to do. Less little and often, more significant time offline and regular.

I know my own team tend to take their weekends for getting down to the beach, into a restaurant or two, or heading for brisk walks through English woods or Scottish coasts. As such, I'd never expect an email reply from them, from about midday on Friday through to mid-morning on Monday (leaving them time to prioritise first thing).

Quartz reports on an entire Connecticut-based marketing firm who had a whole-organisation offline, no device day. To be honest, I was surprised that one day offline for a team was able to make the news n the first place. But then I thought a little harder, and realised that for a whole team to decide in advance to go native (and not digitally so) was still a rare thing, even if just for one day.

The story reveals some of the reasons it might be important to take more frequent time off instead of these newsworthy splurges:

  1. Thinking benefits, not features
    “I’m having second thoughts,” a latecomer said. “I’m supposed to build a Powerpoint deck today.”

    This reveals so much. She's not supposed to be building a Powerpoint deck - it's just that this has become the usual means of trying achieve a multitude of other goals. In the creative industries it has become commonplace, mistakenly I believe, to write ideas down as Powerpoint decks. We write prose in a document, presentations on a deck. It is unlikely the Powerpoint deck was really the best way for this account director to communicate her figures, or for a creative to convey a risky idea. What else might people do in a tech-free day? I'm reminded of the gloriously analogue presentation given by Drew Buddie at one of the first London-based TeachMeets, where he extolled the virtues of stone-stacking through the use of an entire ream of 1980s printer paper.

  2. Digital snobbery
    "Disconnected from their usual feeds, two communications people walk to a bookstore to get the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Cincinnati Enquirer, documenting the three-block journey with an old-school Hi8 camcorder. On the elevator as they returned, a freelancer was arriving for the day and told the unplugged: “I’m holding. Are you jealous?”"

    This is the equivalent of the "how big / new / shiny is yours" that festoons technology use, everywhere. School systems are amongst the worst offenders. No-one outside education understands BYOD or one-to-one. No-one talks with pride of how many computers and devices their insurance company has, as a means, no less, of stating how good that company must be. And yet, that's exactly the kind of lame discussion I hear tech directors having at most meetups. I'd be more proud to come from the school that has a regular tech-free day, placing an accent on thinking first, no excuses.

  3. You're not connected. You're bored
    "In a meeting-induced boredom reflex, I pulled out my phone to check my notifications (there were very few, and none of any importance whatsoever) and immediately felt like a cad for doing so. “Our whole point was to make people feel like assholes,” Chief Creative Officer Nathan Hendricks later joked."

    Most technology use, if we were honest with ourselves (and not actually trading eight hours solid at the LSE), staves boredom, or makes more of 'down time'. Surely the oxymoron is enough - downtime is there to step your brain down for a brief moment. Boredom is there to act as the space between your ears where you can idly just think and reflect.

  4. Can you not just be present?
    "The device room wasn’t supposed to reopen until 4pm, but I am notified on a walkie-talkie that the doors have opened early because some people had to leave. This causes a bit of a reconfiguration of plans."

    If you really want to get under my skin, if you really want to have a good chance of a public shaming, leave a meeting or workshop before the due time. There are always other, more important things to do than think deeply, plan better for the future or reflect on where you've come from in your learning. Because you leave early, you will always be firefighting, coping with the latest unexpected thing. And technology is the key reason you do it. Tech can lead to everything becoming urgent and important, unless you know how to master it. And that involves taking some time out, often.

The pic on the post is mine, from Soho, London - the one place where you might get away with being both plugged in and unplugged at the same time. 

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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